Teams – Organizing and Managing Them Can Be Challenging

by James P. Tate on May 25, 2016

The use of teams is the new paradigm of the business management world.  Everywhere you see recruiting ads searching for people who are “team players”.  The current justification for this increased use of teams is that with a team there are a wider variety of ideas and viewpoints.  The variety of skills of the team members can bring better collaboration to the project.  The use of digital communication and technology can make the exchange of ideas and information faster, and reduce the need for meetings.

Several management consultants argue that teams break down the need for hierarchical reporting and speed the flow of ideas.  Teams can achieve project goals faster and enable the company to gain a competitive advantage by bringing its products and ideas to the marketplace faster.  There are stories of teams achieving objectives in half the normal time.  One justification for teams is that it decentralizes decision-making and avoids the delays of hierarchical review.  Many consultants believe that teams allow the “millennial generation” to tap their ingrained team mentality that has been imposed on them since nursery school.

Although the team approach is being applied in large corporations, in new startup companies, in hospitals and even in the US Army; there are concerns that this approach is not the “perfect” solution to all problems.  Some consultants are reporting that teams have inherent disadvantages that lead to poor decision making and delays.  The use of a team approach is not a guarantee of a sensational result.  It may not even bring a good result.  A recent study of 120 teams of senior executives found that fewer than 10% of the team members could identify the other team members.  Those team members who have initiative and drive and are committed to the team objective may be held back by the slackers on the team.

The highly motivated team members may feel frustrated by having to drag along the slackers on the team.  Is it fair to give equal credit for a successful team effort to all team members when you, and they, know not all the members made a contribution to the team effort?

The problems of coordination and motivation can be a detriment to the value of collaboration on the team.   Teams work best when there is a common sense of purpose.  Establishing this sense of purpose may be difficult when a portion of the team members are contractors and not employees. Teams should be formed for a specific objective and quickly disbanded when they reach their goal.  The famous “skunkworks” at Lockheed Aircraft achieved an amazing feat of developing a new type of aircraft in a relatively short period of time.  But this team was disbanded when its task was complete.

Teams require management of the team effort.  The successful teams have a designated leader to set overall direction and to monitor the efforts of all members.  Those members making no contribution to the team should be replaced immediately.

Teams should be kept small.  Including members simply to be inclusive or to avoid injured feelings is counter-productive to the team.  Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon is quoted as saying, “If I see more than two pizzas for lunch, the team is too big”.  However, including team members who might be considered non-conformists can benefit the team.  These “oddballs” can introduce new thinking and novel ideas to the team effort.  A cross-functional team can bring new perspective to a solution.

Team members should be relieved of their normal tasks and allowed to devote full time to the team effort.  In Lean Philosophy, these teams are called “kaizen teams”.  The kaizen team has a specific goal, a dedicated set of cross-functional members and a defined amount of time to achieve the team objective.  When the team is finished, the members return to their normal jobs.  Lean kaizen teams have project goals that are expected to be achieved in 2 weeks or less.

Teams can be a powerful management tool for accomplishing specific objectives.  However, before you jump in to form teams, management needs to ask itself, is a team effort the best tool for this job?  Is the time needed to achieve the team objective worth the time that members will not be doing their normal jobs?  How will the team be managed?  A team that is casually managed, or not managed at all, can be a waste of time for the members and the organization.

For further reading see: Schumpeter: Team Spirit; The Economist, March 19, 2016 page 71.

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